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Die Macht der Trunkenheit: Kultur-und Sozialgeschichte des Alkohols in Deutschland.

By Hasso Spode (Opladen: Leske & Budrich, 1993. 300pp.)

This book asks big questions about the cultural and social history of alcohol in Germany. Why was the German heavy drinker once considered a "hero"? When did drinking alcohol on a regular basis come to be regarded as an addiction and an illness? Why, as late as 1891, was it possible for a leading figure in the German temperance movement to proclaim that "Germans view prohibition as an exceptionally tyrannical measure" (p. 228)?

In the early chapters of the book, which span the centuries from the fall of the Roman Empire to the eighteenth-century, we learn that periodic bouts of ritualized, massively excessive drinking (Gelage) originally had a quasi-mystical significance; drinking produced a form of religious (though not Christian) ecstasy. In the early and later feudal periods, ritualized drinking became more of a demonstration of wealth and a test of "manliness". For centuries, drinking considerable amounts of alcohol was also considered to be a quite normal, indeed necessary part of everyday life; Goethe put away two or three bottles of wine a day (considered "not excessive" by a contemporary) and even eighteenth-century convicts received a daily ration of spirits. Ordinary Germans valued alcohol as a nutritional supplement and as a stimulant to heavy, physical labor. Doctors praised alcohol's "medicinal" attributes. Water retained the stigma of a poor man's drink.

In the eighteenth century, the popular classes in most of northern Germany abandoned beer for distilled spirits (Branotwein), increasingly in the form of cheap potato Schnaps. This north German conversion to spirits (south Germans remained attached to their watery beer) seemed at first to be no more than a new, regional peculiarity created by enterprising Junker estate owners who had discovered another way of drawing profits from their grain and potato harvests and by rural laborers who viewed spirits as a quicker, cheaper, more portable way of getting alcohol into their bodies. But by the 1830s, the "plague of distilled spirits" appeared to be destroying the family, undermining religion, authority, and morality, dissolving work-discipline, rendering the public streets unsafe, damaging the health of army recruits and fomenting political revolution. The evangelising clerics who led and the artisans who joined the mushrooming "temperance movement" of the 1830s and 1840s engaged in a "crusade" not for total abstinence but for the moderate consumption of "good" alcohol (beer, wine) in the place of "bad" (distilled spirits). "Teetotalism" (a concept for which it was difficult even to find a German word) remained unthinkably "foreign". The first German temperance movement was not ready to endorse the newest medical "knowledge" which discerned no significant distinction between "good" and "bad" alcohol, or between "moderate" and "excessive drinking", because all contact with alcohol was deemed potentially addictive. This first temperance movement was religious and moralistic. Its central rite--taking a vow to renounce spirits--was a "conversion" experience, a kind of "baptism" for the individual drinker. But 1848 demonstrated that the great majority of ordinary Germans had not been converted.

The "German Association for the Prevention of Alcohol Abuse" (DVMG), founded in 1883, consciously rejected the tactics of the earlier temperance move' meet. Rather than emotional moralizing, preaching and individual conversion, the DVMG emphasized rational and scientific enlightenment and lobbying the state for changes in taxation, licensing laws and the legal treatment of drunkards. Alongside the DVMG, which still clung to the concept of "moderation", other oganisations, such as the Guttempler, insisted on complete "abstinence" and a state prohibition of alcohol. While anti-socialists continued to draw connections between proletarian drinking and the threat of revolution, Social Democrats feared that the revolution would never come, if workers turned to drink instead of politics. So the SPD, too, tried to educate workers about the dangers of alcohol and, in 1909, even launched a nation-wide boycott of Schnaps. Yet, abstinent socialists remained a distinct minority. Alcohol was too deeply entrenched in German working-class culture and social drinking served a vital function in the labor movement; as Karl Kautsky observed, the local pub was often the only public space in the Wilhelmine Empire where working men could gather and talk politics.

The second German temperance movement did eventually manage to produce a "stable infrastructure of state-financed institutions for research and therapy" (p. 272). But within this new "therapeutic complex", it was the ideas of the radical minority that triumphed. In the twentieth century the "addiction" (Sucht) paradigm guides a wide range of therapeutic practices, not just the treatment of alcoholics. The contemporary discourse has shifted from the "addictive substance" to the "addictive personality" which can exhibit an infinite variety of symptoms, from "excessive" love of animals to "compulsive" tourism! But after an unprecedented interwar decline, alcohol consumption has today returned to Wilhelmine levels. Spode suggests that an "imaginary line of tradition reaching back to the ancient Germans, swinging their mead-horns" continues to sustain a broad consensus that a certain level of alcohol consumption is inseparable from German national character (p. 261). Yet Germans are forced to worry about their drinking more now than they did in 1914. The "addiction paradigm" has been revised to allow a distinction between "normal" and "pathological" use of alcohol, but the line separating these categories is unclear and unstable. Germans who drink risk slipping from the acceptable to the dangerous zone.

Spode's forays into the history of table manners, or the spread of coffee-drinking (the "drug of reason") in the eighteenth century are not always easy to connect with his primary narrative. Wolfgang Schivelbusch and James Roberts have already explored much of the ground that Spode covers in his chapters on the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Despite its obvious importance, gender has not been integrated into Spode's analysis. And the author's discussion of the twentieth century ignores the Third Reich. Yet readers can still learn a lot from this sprawling, fascinating book.
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Author:Crew, David
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 1995
Words:970
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